Research into cardiac regeneration and organometallic chemistry has netted three University of Virginia undergraduates Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation scholarships to assist undergraduate science research.
Anna Brosnahan, 20, of Arlington, and Andrew Lankenau, 20, of Herndon, both chemistry majors in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Tristan Jones, 21, of Reston, a biomedical engineering major specializing in cardiovascular systems biology in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, have been awarded the prestigious scholarships.
U.Va. was one of 10 universities to receive a 2013 Beckman Scholars Award from the foundation earlier this year. This is a three-year renewal of the Beckman Scholars grant, continuing the program at U.Va., which was selected largely because of its strong commitment to quality undergraduate research.
The award is worth approximately $120,000 and provides scholarships for two undergraduate researchers per year who are working in chemistry, biochemistry and the biological and medical sciences. The scholars are selected locally and the funds provide each undergraduate researcher $19,300 in salary and travel for two summers and one academic year. The Office of the Vice President for Research and the dean’s offices of the College and the Engineering School are funding a third scholar per year.
“The Beckman Scholarships are nationally coveted, and the highest award bestowed at U.Va. for undergraduate research,” said William H. Guilford, associate professor and undergraduate program director in biomedical engineering in the Engineering School and the School of Medicine, and director of U.Va.’s Beckman Scholars Program. “We sought the very best proposals from some of the most research-committed students, working with some of the most talented undergraduate research mentors, and we got them.”
A closer look at the scholarship winners:
Brosnahan, a fourth-year student focusing on organometallic chemistry, is researching new catalysts to produce alkyl or vinyl arenes, of which about 60 billion pounds per annum are used as precursors to products including fuels, plastics and detergents. She is working on methods that may reduce environmental impact, energy consumption and expenses compared to current processes.
“Anna places at the top of her peers in classroom performance,” chemistry professor T. Brent Gunnoe said. “However, it is in the research lab where her talent, dedication and creativity shine. Anna is among the most skilled and motivated undergraduate students with whom I have worked. She balances the demands of her classes and research remarkably well.”
Gunnoe said Brosnahan has made substantial contributions to the lab’s research.
“Very few undergraduates exhibit her combination of work ethic, fundamental understanding of science and chemistry and skill set in the lab,” he said. “The research funded by the Beckman Scholarship will set the foundation for her future academic and research endeavors, and I have high expectations about Anna's future achievements.”
Jones, a third-year student, is researching cardiac regeneration that follows a heart attack.
“I aim to optimize the conversion of scar tissue into functional muscle cells through the addition of transcription factors,” he said. “I chose this topic because it is a very new and exciting technique that has a good chance of becoming therapeutically useful someday.”
Jones is treasurer of the Rodman Council and The Spectra undergraduate engineering research journal, a medical services volunteer at Madison House, and has been selected as a Lawn resident for next year. He received a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award in 2013 for his cardiac research. A graduate of the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, he plans to pursue a medical degree.
“This award will certainly allow me to devote more of my efforts to my research this coming year and will help boost my application for an M.D./Ph.D. program,” he said.
Jeff Saucerman, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, said he is impressed with Jones’ calm, positive outlook in the face of seemingly endless experimental challenges.
“Tristan's a real optimist – not that things will be easy, but that over time he can find a way to make things work,” he said. “Despite a heavy workload and other commitments, he spends countless hours both on his project and teaching other lab members the techniques he's developed.”
Lankenau, a second-year student, is researching the separation of two chemically identical, but biologically different, tungsten fragments, working closely with W. Dean Harman, chairman of the Department of Chemistry.
“The Harman Lab utilizes this specific metal fragment to synthesize drug derivatives, and it is important that these two fragments be isolated from one another,” Lankenau said. “Otherwise, drugs created utilizing this metal may appear to be identical under ordinary chemical tests, but have unintended consequences when placed in a living system. If a method were to be devised to easily and efficiently separate these two fragments from each other, all created products could be safely and reliably used in biological systems. There is an enormous degree of pharmaceutical potential in this project.”
Harman invited Lankenau to join his laboratory in the middle of the student’s first year at U.Va. “Andrew is an extraordinarily dedicated young scientist who is astonishingly quick to pick up new ideas and concepts,” he said. “He has been a pleasure to work with and is widely respected in my research group.”
Lankenau is an Echols Scholar, a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award Recipient, a representative of the College Council's Chemistry Department, a member of the Undergraduate Research Network symposium committee, a chemistry teaching assistant and a dean’s list student. He is also a member of the Phi Eta Sigma Honor Society and the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. He tutors student-athletes through the Cavalier Academic Support Team. A graduate of Oakton High School, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry and teach at a university.
“Andrew is a deep thinker,” Harman said. “He has a firm command of the basic principles of chemistry, has a healthy scientific curiosity, and always is looking to understand the physical world on a deeper level.”
Harman said Lankenau stands out even among top-flight undergrads in the lab.
“I consider Andrew to be in the very top echelon of these students,” Harman said. “He shows a determination and enthusiasm that makes me think that his success in graduate school and academics is all but certain.”